A couple months ago, I watched a documentary about the life of Jim Henson on PBS.
I grew up with the Muppets and always admired the artistry and imagination of Henson’s enterprise. It was interesting to have this behind-the-scenes look at Henson life, and to learn about the personal and professional struggles he dealt with.
One of the moments of the documentary that stuck with me was a very brief discussion of Labyrinth, one in a long string of movies that Henson made.
Labyrinth was a disappointment in Henson’s career. The movie did not succeed at the box office, bringing in only half the amount that it cost to produce. Henson was deeply disappointed by this, and perhaps as a result, Labyrinth would be the last full-length feature film he made before his unexpected death in 1990.
It took almost thirty years before I learned from that PBS documentary last autumn that Labyrinth was considered a failure. Frankly, I found it hard to believe. I remember seeing this movie when it came out. I enjoyed the artistry, the adventure, and the endless string of very clever moments.
Labyrinth was one of the very few films of that era that featured a young woman as its protagonist: Sarah, played by the lovely and talented Jennifer Connelly. The film was bold in its assertion that the only thing a young woman really needed to outwit a devious, powerful, and rather sexy Goblin King was a healthy dose of determination.
The movie resonated with me, in a deep and lasting way.
I’ve since discovered that Labyrinth resonated with a lot of other people, too. It’s one of those films that turns up in conversation every so often, and it is always remembered with fondness.
When David Bowie passed away last weekend, the first thing many of my friends did was sit down and watch Labyrinth, so they could enjoy Bowie’s iconic portrayal of the Goblin King once more.
When a local cinema announced it would be showing a quotable Labyrinth as a benefit for cancer research and in honor of Bowie’s passing, the event sold out within hours. I snagged a ticket, of course. Sunday evening, I enjoyed a theater packed full of people who could quote every line and sing every song of this “failed” two hour fantasy.
Reflecting on the history of Labyrinth brought home to me, once again, the disconnect that often exists between commercial success and artistic impact. I don’t have a solution to this reality, or even any real understanding of the reasons behind it. All I can offer is the enduring observation that time and again, works considered a “flop” on commercial grounds nonetheless hit a deep chord with a large number of people and end up coloring our imaginations for generations to come.
It saddens me that Jim Henson died without knowing his “failure” would become a cult classic, cherished by many for decades after its initial release. Sometimes I wish there were a way to rectify the market measure of success so that it would align more consistently with other measures that are perhaps more profound and important.
But the whims of the market aside, Labyrinth is a testimony to the legacy of the risk-taker, to visionaries like Jim Henson who aren’t afraid to push boundaries in their efforts to show us new worlds and possibilities.
Money comes and goes, but imagination is forever.